Socratic Wisdom

“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him” (Plato, Apology, Jowett trans.).

The greatest wisdom a human can have is to recognize what we don’t really know. This can be a touchy point, because people who think they just know things they imagine to be true usually don’t like to be told otherwise. But in most areas, the best we can aim for is well-founded belief, which is to say belief that is capable of responding resiliently and in good faith to open-ended Socratic questioning or dialogue, and thus is responsive to the space of reasons. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

Plotinus on Intellectual Beauty

“Art… must itself be beautiful in a far higher and purer degree [than the beautiful object]” (Plotinus, Enneads V.8, MacKenna trans., p. 422)

“The Nature, then, which creates things so lovely must be itself of a far earlier beauty; we, undisciplined in discernment of the inward, knowing nothing of it, run after the outer, never understanding that it is the inner that stirs us; we are in the case of one who sees his own reflection but not realizing whence it comes goes in pursuit of it” (p. 423).

“By what image, thus, can we represent it? We have nowhere to go but to what is less” (p. 424).

“For all There is heaven; earth is heaven, and sea heaven; and animal and plant and man; all is the heavenly content of that heaven…. And each of them contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, and all is all and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great; the sun, There, is all the stars; and every star, again, is all the stars and sun. While some one manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other” (p. 425).

“Each There walks upon no alien soil; its place is its essential self; and, as each moves, so to speak, towards what is Above, it is attended by the very ground from which it starts: there is no distinguishing between the Being and the Place; all is Intellect, the Principle and the ground on which it stands, alike” (ibid).

“The myth of Lynceus seeing into the very deeps of the earth tells us of those eyes in the divine. No weariness overtakes the vision which yet brings no satiety as would call for its ending; for there never was a void to be filled…. [T]o see is to look the more, since for them to continue in the contemplation of an infinite self and of infinite objects is but to acquiesce in the bidding of their nature” (ibid).

“Life, pure, is never a burden…. The greatness and power of the wisdom There we may know from this, that it embraces all the real Beings, and has made all and all follow it, and yet that it is itself those beings” (p. 426).

“If we have failed to understand, it is that we have thought of knowledge as a mass of theorems and an accumulation of propositions, though that is false even for our sciences of the sense-realm…. [T]his is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out in detail” (ibid).

“Later from this wisdom in unity there appears, in another form of being, an image, already less compact, which announces the original in terms of discourse and seeks the causes by which things are such that the wonder arises how a generated world can be so excellent…. This excellence, whose necessity is scarcely or not at all manifest to search, exists, if we could but find it out, before all searching and reasoning” (p. 427).

“One way, only, remains: all things must exist in something else… thus the entire aggregate of existence springs from the divine world…. [T]he creation is not hindered, even now; it stands firm in virtue of being All. To me, moreover, it seems that if we ourselves were archetypes, Ideas, veritable Being, and the Idea with which we construct here were our veritable Essence, then our creative power, too, would toillessly effect its purpose” (p. 428).

“Certainly no reproach can rightly be brought against this world save only that it is not That” (p. 429).

“Being is desirable because it is identical with Beauty; and Beauty is loved because it is Being. How then can we debate which is the cause of the other, where the nature is one?” (p. 430).

“To those that do not see entire, the immediate impression is alone taken into account; but those drunken with this wine, filled with the nectar, all their soul penetrated by this beauty, cannot remain mere gazers: no longer is there a spectator outside gazing on an outside spectacle; the clear-eyed hold the vision within themselves, though, for the most part, they have no idea that it is within but look towards it as to something beyond them and see it as an object of wisdom caught by a direction of the will” (p. 431).

“The very contrary: to see the divine as something external is to be outside of it” (p. 432).

“We ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being” (p. 433).

History of Ethics: Plato

Traditional communities, even the most “primitive” known to modern anthropology, have well-defined, generally accepted ways of distinguishing good and bad actions. Hegel called this “ethical substance”.

What I call “ethics” involves a second level, in which the criteria for good and bad are subject to discussion. Here we are not simply laying down the law, but inquiring into the principles that ought to govern distinctions between good and bad. The oldest documented example of this kind of inquiry in our planetary family of cultures is the writings of Plato. How much of the literary character of Socrates in Plato is attributable to the historic Socrates is debated by scholars, but need not concern us here. It is in Plato that we find an actual record of Socratic inquiry. Other so-called “minor Socratic” schools also claimed to be inspired by Socrates, but left no record of critical give and take comparable to what we find in the dialogues of Plato.

Plato clearly recognized the weakness of argument from authority, and put the reasoned examination of principles before the mere fact of anyone’s say-so. He further pointed out that assertions about God’s will and its applicability to real-world cases need to be evaluated as human assertions, on the same footing as others. In discussions about truth, there are no specially privileged assertions or asserters. He set a strong ideal of sincerely seeking knowledge rather than assuming we have it, and by example promoted the modest attitude that humans should avoid making strong claims that human knowledge cannot validate. Many of his most important ideas are only presented as what I call “suggestions”.

Provocatively, Plato suggested that all beings desire the good, and that the Good is the most ultimate formative principle of all things. This reduces evil to ignorance of the true Good. The tendentious claim here is that evil is a kind of lack or defect, and that no one who aims at what is really evil properly understands what they are doing. This gives fundamental ethical significance to knowledge and the quest for better understanding. Treating evil as due to some lack of understanding also suggests a way of forgiving the evil-doer.

For Plato, wisdom and goodness are correlative. Wisdom especially includes the recognition of what we do not know. It is superior to any law. The most wise are the best qualified to govern, but do not want the job and must be coaxed into doing it.

Plato was unconcerned with questions like who decides who is wise, preferring to focus instead on how such judgments should be made. For the latter, he suggested the same kind of free and open dialogue and examination of reasons as for any other questions about truth.

Wisdom and Responsibility

Among other works, the great early 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote his own Cartesian Meditations, an expanded version of lectures delivered in Paris in 1929. Husserl developed his own version of phenomenology, very different from Hegel’s, and his own version of transcendental subjectivity, very different from Kant’s. Throughout his career, he was concerned to criticize naive notions of objectivity. While disagreeing with a few of his fundamental principles, I enormously admire his nuanced development and intellectual honesty.

Husserl writes that “The aim of [Descartes’] Meditations is a complete reforming of philosophy into a science grounded on an absolute foundation” (Cartesian Meditations, p. 1). I think of philosophy as concerned with generalized, coherent interpretation of life and the world as an ongoing, never-finished project, rather than a completed rational “science”. But Husserl, with all his scruples about premature claims of objectivity, is famously provisional in most of his actual developments. As long as the ultimate “science” remains an aim and is not claimed as a present possession, we have not fallen into dogmatism. I think Husserl overall actually does better than Kant at avoiding overstated claims of “scientific” accomplishment.

According to Husserl, Descartes “gives rise to a philosophy turned toward the subject himself” (p. 2). I tend to worry more about illegitimate claims on behalf of a sovereign Subject than about premature claims to know about real objects, but both concerns are valid. “Philosophy — wisdom (sagesse) — is the philosopher’s quite personal affair. It must arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from the beginning, and at each step” (ibid).

The literal meaning of the Greek philosophia is “love of wisdom”. Some kind of wisdom, rather theoretical knowledge, was the main goal of ancient philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle through the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, all the way to the neoplatonists. An emphasis on wisdom as distinct from knowledge puts a “practical”, ultimately ethical dimension above all particular inquiries, whereas Latin scholastics focused on more technical debates about the truth of propositions, and early modern philosophy was permeated with ideals of pure science. I think it was really more the Kantian primacy of practical reason than the Cartesian cogito that initiated a partial turn back to the ethical concerns of the ancients. Some writers have suggested that claims for the revolutionary character of the cogito are more shaped by Kant’s interpretation and by the perception of Descartes as a precursor to Kant than by Descartes’ original.

Commentators have noted that ethical concerns are basically absent from Descartes’ Meditations. Kant and Husserl each in their own way reinfused broadly ethical concerns into Descartes’ preoccupations with the foundations of knowledge.

Husserl appeals to “the spirit that characterizes radicalness of philosophical self-responsibility” (p. 6). “Must not the demand for a philosophy aiming at the ultimate conceivable freedom from prejudice, shaping itself with actual autonomy according to ultimate evidences it has itself produced, and therefore absolutely self-responsible — must not this demand, instead of being excessive, be part of the fundamental sense of genuine philosophy?” (ibid).

This Husserlian appeal to autonomy, like Kant’s, ultimately still has to answer to the critiques of Hegel and Brandom (see In Itself, For Itself; Autonomy, Normativity; Self-Legislation?). Nonetheless, it is a high point in the development of the human spirit.

Meno

Plato’s short dialogue Meno — concerned with virtue and knowledge — is among the most famous of what are referred to as his “Socratic” dialogues, which dwell on Socratic method, and on the character of Socrates as a kind of role model. Meno wants Socrates to provide an easy answer to how virtue is to be acquired. Socrates, ever distrustful of easy answers, shifts the discussion toward the more basic question of what virtue is. Meno first responds with examples, but Socrates points out that examples do not answer the “what is” question.

Meno eventually suggests that virtue is the desire of honorable things, combined with the power of attaining them. Socrates then points out that some people desire evil, and that a person may have power, yet still fail to properly recognize good as good and evil as evil. Meno complains that Socrates is always doubting himself and making others doubt, and says he feels bewitched.

Socrates introduces a poetic myth that learning is a kind of recollection of knowledge that we already had. He then walks a young boy through a simple geometrical construction. At the beginning, the boy seems to have no idea how to solve the problem. Then he thinks he does, but he is wrong. At a later point, he recognizes the mistake. Socrates points out that it is always better to know that we do not know, than to think that we know when we do not. But still later, after following the steps of the construction, it seems like the boy does understand how to find the solution, though he is never told. As Brandom might remind us, this shows the value of making what was implicit into something explicit.

Eventually, Socrates leads Meno to the conclusion that virtue is “either wholly or partly wisdom”. But then he introduces a further doubt, whether virtue can be reduced to knowledge. True opinion is said to be as good a guide to action as knowledge, and this is said to be how most good people function.

But then finally, true opinion is said not to be of very great value after all, because it is not “fastened by the tie of the cause”, and therefore tends to “run away” from us. That is to say, when we do not really know — i.e., cannot articulate — the why of a conclusion that is right in one context, it is easy to misapply it in a different context. (See also Dialogue; Platonic Truth; What and Why; Reasons.)